When Sean Duffy first had his number called, it was somewhat unexpected.
A junior college transfer from Anchorage, Alaska, Duffy was slated to learn behind senior Dubuque quarterback Michael Briscoe for a year. Briscoe went down with a season-ending injury during 2018 camp, and the keys to the offense were handed to Duffy.
Naturally, the season that followed contained all the highs and lows of a gunslinger gripping a new system. There were triumphs like Duffy’s six-touchdown performance over Nebraska Wesleyan as well as setbacks like his three-interception game in a loss to Central.
“It was just kind of the next man up mentality. A guy goes down, next man has to be ready,” said Duffy, a junior left-handed passer. “Having a season underneath my belt, being thrown into the fire like I was last year, I kind of enjoyed it because it forced me to learn really fast. Some of the stuff we have going this year is going to be fun and I’m excited for it.”
There are plenty of reasons to think it’s going to be a much smoother ride for the Spartans’ offense this year. UD returns eight starters on offense, including top receiver Kody Reimer and leading running back Dwayne Allen Jr. And, new offensive coordinator, Dan Clark, looks to implement some of the things that have made him successful at the NCAA Division I level.
“The offense here has a lot of weapons,” said Clark, the former offensive line coach at Division I-AA programs Stephen F. Austin and Illinois State. “For us as an offense we’ve got to do a good job of making sure we’re getting our playmakers the football. We’re going to go as the offensive line goes as far as run-blocking, pass-protection, keeping Duffy clean and keeping the run lanes open for Dwayne.
“(Coach Zweifel) wanted consistency. He wants the gelling as a unit and everybody on the same page.”
Spartans head coach Stan Zweifel has enough trust in Clark’s intuition that — for the first time in his 10 seasons at UD — Zweifel is actually handing over play-calling duties to his coordinator.
It’ll be an adjustment, said Zweifel, who coyly admitted he’s had a few second thoughts about the switch. But in taking a step back, Zweifel also said he’s enjoyed being able to oversee his whole program and has had some quality time coaching the defensive side of the ball.
“It’s going to be new and interesting,” said Zweifel, who owns a 61-41 overall record at UD. “I’m more of a guy now trying to coach every position and be a lot more involved in the defense than I have in the past. I’m trying to be actively involved in coaching position groups.
“It’s different. I don’t know that it’s good or bad. It’s just different.”
The Spartans have the same goal every year: win the American Rivers Conference and compete for the NCAA Division III postseason. Since 2015, the last time UD won the league, the Spartans have finished second in the A-R-C twice, suffering one or two key losses that have kept them just out of the title hunt.
There’s enough experience returning on both sides of the ball to think Dubuque will be in the mix again this year. The defense brings back nine starters, including leading tackler Chad Marsh, defensive back Blaze Barista and outside linebacker Marshon Crowder. Barista and Crowder finished near the top of the conference in interceptions and sacks, respectively.
“Without a doubt, I feel like the defense has grown with all of the returners that we have,” said Crowder, a junior and former Dubuque Hempstead prep. “We’re all playing with a huge chip on our shoulders. Last season didn’t finish how we wanted it to, so we had all offseason with a sour taste in our mouths.”
The schedule doesn’t pay the Spartans any favors. They open on Saturday with a road date against No. 3 UW-Whitewater and will also travel to Wartburg and Central — the two teams picked to finish higher than Dubuque in the A-R-C preseason coaches’ poll. All of the Spartans’ toughest games occur before their Week 9 bye on Nov. 2, and by that time their fate in the conference standings could be all but sealed.
Duffy knows what it’s like to be dealt a tough hand. The only thing UD can do is embrace the challenge.
“We all want it really bad,” he said. “We’re going to play every snap our hardest and our fastest.”